Blackberry and Wild Rose by Sonia Velton

Huguenot Silk Weavers Inspire Velton’s Debut, Blackberry and Wild Rose

April 1, 2019
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An exclusive AUTHORLINK interview with Sonia Velton

Blackberry and Wild Rose (Hardcover, Blackstone Publishing, 7 May 2019).

Blackberry and Wild Rose is a stunning, intricate debut about two very different women, the wife of a Huguenot master silk weaver, Esther Thorel, and a young woman, Sara Kemp, who has been working as a prostitute since she arrived in London.

For fans of Jessie Burton and Tracy Chevalier, a rich historical debut set among the Huguenot silk weavers of Spitalfields in the late 18th century.

AUTHORLINK: Ms. Velton, thank you so much for sharing your time with us today. We enjoyed Blackberry and Wild Rose very much; it’s so impressive for a debut novel! The class struggle between Master silk weavers from Lyon, the Huguenots who immigrated to Spitalfields, London, and their journeymen is a subject not often written about in fiction and is intriguing. We understand it’s loosely based on Anna Maria Garthwaite, who was the foremost silk designer of the mid-eighteenth century. What was the spark that made you write about this industry and era?

“I often think of the inspiration for Blackberry & Wild Rose as a kind of perfect storm.”

VELTON: It’s my absolute pleasure, thank you for asking me, and I’m so pleased you enjoyed the book.

I often think of the inspiration for Blackberry & Wild Rose as a kind of perfect storm. The more I found out about the history of the Huguenot silk weavers of 18th century Spitalfields, the more it spoke to me on so many levels. I used to live near Spitalfields, and I loved walking down the old streets and looking at the Georgian townhouses and their huge attic windows. I later found out that they were ‘longlights’, designed to allow as much light in as possible for the silk weavers working at their looms up in the garrets.

I found this idea captivating and began to imagine my very own household of master silk weavers. I was working as an employment/discrimination lawyer at the time, and so was also very interested in the immigration of the Huguenots into the East End. Then I discovered the industrial conflict between the journeymen weavers and their masters, culminating in riots, and the fact that the journeymen weavers were pioneers of the trade union movement. Many of my clients at the time were trade unions, so this really spoke to the labour lawyer in me.

The final piece fell into place when I came across the blue plaque on a house in Princelet Street saying, Anna Maria Garthwaite, designer of Spitalfields Silks lived and worked here. A woman was the foremost designer of the exquisite 18th century figured silks! Once I had seen her work for myself in the Victoria & Albert Museum, I knew I had the inspiration for my female protagonist.

AUTHORLINK: Understandably! For those readers who are not yet familiar with your book, can you tell us briefly about the history of the Huguenot silk weavers and the conflict between Master weavers, their journeyman and the ban on Indian calico in England in the 18th century before the industrial revolution?

VELTON: The Huguenots were French protestants. Following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, they suffered persecution at the hands of the Catholics. Some left their native France and fled abroad, bringing with them their talents as silk weavers, silversmiths and lace makers. Many silk weavers from places like Lyon settled in Spitalfields where, due to their skill and industrious work ethic, they were hugely successful.

Spitalfields became a world centre for the production of complex figured silk. Unfortunately, the hey-day of the Spitalfields silks could not last forever. The industry was threatened by the importation of cheaper alternatives such as printed Indian Calico. The master weaver’s profits suffered, so they reduced the price they would pay the journeymen weavers to weave the silk. The journeymen then formed illegal ‘combinations’, essentially early trade unions, in order to try to force the master weavers to pay a minimum ‘piece rate’ for the silk, and a subscription to fund their activities. This set the scene for serious industrial conflict, culminating (as was often the case in the eighteenth century) in retribution and riot.

AUTHORLINK: That is very interesting, thank you. The historical research you carried out was detailed and convincing. Did you have an outline of the story first (and the ending) before you launched into your research?

“I always knew how it was going to end because I wanted to stay true to the actual events…”

VELTON: Thank you. Essentially, the real historical events that I discovered during my research gave me a broad outline of the plot. The Cutters’ Riots of 1769 and the fate of some of the weavers who got caught up in them were real historical events. I just needed to drop the fictional Thorel household into those turbulent times!

I always knew how it was going to end because I wanted to stay true to the actual events as they unfolded, and to Esther Thorel’s creative development in the vein of Anna Maria Garthwaite. The more creative element was the relationship between Esther and Sara Kemp, the whore-turned lady’s maid, and all the other loves, looses, conflicts and betrayals that simmer beneath the Thorel household’s veneer of respectability.

AUTHORLINK: There’s nothing more exquisite than a satin gown with figured-silk embroidery. Anna Maria Garthwaite (whose patterns and silks can be seen in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum and whose designs inspired the title of your novel), is a fascinating character upon which to base your story. As you said once, “That any woman in the 1700s could go from this to becoming the foremost silk designer in an industry dominated by men is impressive.” (Historia, 25 January 2019). While most successful male silk designers were established Master weavers, she broke into the tight-knit industry of the Huguenot silk weavers by sending out her early designs signed only, ‘A M Garthwaite’. What else can you tell us about this significant woman of history? 

VELTON: Anna Maria Garthwaite is a bit of an enigma. Her legacy speaks for itself in the hundreds of beautiful watercolour silk designs that she produced, and the actual silks made from them that survive to this day. However, not much is known about Garthwaite herself. In particular, how she developed the skills to translate her watercolour paintings into technical designs.

We do know that she was already in her early 40s when she moved to Spitalfields. She was a life-long spinster, living with her sister and their female ward. I sometimes wonder how Garthwaite would feel about having inspired the character of Esther Thorel. I hope she would be pleased and flattered, although, given her apparently rather wholesome personal life, she might have raised an eyebrow at some of the goings on in the Thorel household!

AUTHORLINK: Perhaps! 😊 What are your thoughts on good or bad reviews? How do you handle constructive criticism, or do you avoid it altogether?

VELTON: I have always sought out constructive criticism on the basis that, in my opinion, aspiring writers who are not put off by honest feedback – and are prepared to write and rewrite their books, making them better each time – stand a better chance of eventually getting published. This isn’t a process that stops once you’re published, so I do read reviews as feedback is going to help me continue to develop as a writer. It’s important to keep a sense of perspective though. You’re certainly not as bad as your worst review, but you might not be as good as the gushing 5-star ones either!

“The alternating chapter format kept the writing process fresh for me.”

AUTHORLINK: Blackberry and Wild Rose tells the intertwining stories of Sara Kemp and Esther Thorel. They are not entirely comfortable with each other, which makes for a tense and interesting story. Why did you prefer to use an alternate-chapter style in which to tell their stories? 

VELTON: The alternating chapter format kept the writing process fresh for me. I’d try to write a chapter a day, so that each morning I sat down to a new perspective. Also, because Sara and Esther have such different social standing, Sara is able to tells us what’s going on in the kitchens and the taverns, the brothels and the cramped attics of the journeyman weaver’s cottages.

It also allowed me to explore the women’s views of each other, and how they were able to see the same situations or events in very different ways. This is one of the things that interests me most in writing fiction, and it’s a theme that I am continuing with my next book, which also has dual female narrators and explores questions of identity, and how we perceive ourselves and others.

AUTHORLINK: Interesting. What was going on in your life when you first aspired to be a writer? Was Blackberry and Wild Rose, the first book you ever wrote, or do you have a pile of other attempts somewhere? How many times did you edit the manuscript before you were confident it was polished enough to be seen by an agent? Who was your first reader? How many agents did you approach before it was signed up? Did it have any rejections from publishing houses?

VELTON: I was working as a lawyer at the time. Initially, I had qualified into Banking law at an international law firm, but I quickly realised that the corporate world was not for me. I then joined the Human Rights and Discrimination Unit of a smaller firm, however, there was still something missing for me. Although I was privileged to work on some amazing cases, I still felt a little unfulfilled and began to think of what else I could do. At the same time, my interest in writing, and fascination with the Huguenot silk weavers, was growing and I just felt that I had to write a book about them.

For many years it was just a hobby. I would write, put it away for months, take it out and write some more. I still had a full-on career as a lawyer, which then gave way to three children in quick succession, so I wrote around those commitments, as and when I could.

I’d finished a complete draft of the book previously, but it wasn’t good enough so I’d set it aside and started again. I wrote many drafts of this book to learn the craft of writing, rather than writing different books on different subjects. I tested the drafts on www.youwriteon.com, a peer review site, then, when I had a draft that worked, I entered the opening in the Lucy Cavendish College Cambridge Fiction Prize. I was delighted when it was shortlisted, and it gave me the confidence boost I needed to get on and finish that promising draft. I then sent it to the agent who had judged the prize, another agent who had approached me having seen the opening on the Lucy Cavendish website, and my ‘dream agent’, Juliet Mushens. Happily, Juliet quickly offered me representation and the rest, as they say….

AUTHORLINK: Your perseverance is impressive given your work and family life! Good for you. Some have compared you to Tracey Chevalier. Who are your favourite authors and some of your most cherished books? 

VELTON: My beloved historical fiction books are: Perfume by Patrick Suskind, Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach and The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber. I am also a fan of Sarah Dunant and, of course, Tracey Chevalier.

AUTHORLINK: This is a lovely and succinct appraisal on Sara’s character, “Sara allows us to peer beyond the elegant parlours and ochre-coloured walls of the Thorel household and glimpse the East End’s dark underbelly. This makes Blackberry and Wild Rose a book of contrasts: the ethereal beauty of figured silk, and the finger-numbing hours of repetitive pulling on ‘lashes’ and ‘simples’ endured by the drawboys; the apparent piety of a religious household and the flawed reality of marriage; the strict moral code of the Huguenot community and the chillingly expeditious way 18th-century justice was dispensed; the tasteful privilege of Esther Thorel’s existence, and the life of her new lady’s maid, Sara Kemp, full of chamber pots, brick dust and relentless drudgery.” (Historia, 25 January 2019). Had you done any creative writing courses before you put pen to paper to write a novel? If so, which were they?

“I’m self-taught from trial and error: writing, getting feedback, keeping what worked…”

VELTON: Years ago, when I was a disillusioned lawyer and developing an interest in writing, I attended a 10-week writing course every Monday at the Groucho Club, in London. It was only a couple of hours a week, but it took us through the basics of tense, POV, etc. That’s the only formal writing course I’ve done. Otherwise, I’m self-taught from trial and error: writing, getting feedback, keeping what worked and scrapping the rest. Rewriting it a little better next time.

AUTHORLINK: A bit of natural talent doesn’t go astray either! Without giving anything away, the story ends with a trial at which the judge says, ‘I understand that all this is difficult for you – a servant and a woman – to understand…’ However, the men in this story underestimate the women at their peril. How did you come to that ending? Was it pre-planned or did it occur organically as you wrote along?

VELTON: The trial was always the ending, even from early drafts, but the character of Sara, particularly how she developed as a person, and the moral dilemmas she faced, evolved organically as the story progressed. I’m not sure that I even knew whether she’d do the right thing in the end!

AUTHORLINK: And a few last questions just for fun…How do you relax? What would you have said to younger self? And, which famous person, living or dead would you like to meet and why?

VELTON: To relax, I play tennis. For me, it’s the perfect combination of physical and mental challenge, and a great way to socialise.

I would tell my younger self to believe in herself more and write a bit faster, please.

I’d love to meet William Hogarth. His paintings were a significant inspiration for my book, particularly A Harlot’s Progress, Industry & Idleness and Gin Lane. The social commentary in his art, and his shrewd observations on the human condition make me think he would have been a fascinating man to know.

AUTHORLINK: Those answers are so interesting! Thank you so much for your thoughts about your wonderful debut, Blackberry and Wild Rose! We wish you all the best in your future writing career!

VELTON: Thank you! It’s been a privilege to join you on Authorlink. I really enjoyed sharing a little of the background to Blackberry & Wild Rose with you and your readers.

About the Author: Sonia Velton has been a solicitor in Hong Kong, a Robert Schuman Scholar in Luxembourg and spent eight years being a full-time mother of three in Dubai. She now lives in Kent. Her first novel, Blackberry and Wild Rose, tells the story of a fictional household of master silk weavers living in eighteenth-century Spitalfields. The protagonist is loosely inspired by Anna Maria Garthwaite who was the foremost silk designer of the mid-eighteenth century and the title takes its name from an actual silk design. The novel was shortlisted as a work in progress for the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize 2015 and longlisted for the Myslexia Novel Competition.

You can find out more about Sonia Velton at https://twitter.com/search?q=sonia%20velton&src=typd and https://www.instagram.com/soniavelton/

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